Here we are at the halfway point of 2018, where I make sure to have to have at the ready a working list of some of the best movies I have so far in the year. One film that I cannot shake from memory is one I never had the opportunity to review, so consider my praise for my favorite of the year (so far) a belated review. Annihilation‘s position at number one is very personal and far from objective, as it certainly isn’t a movie — from a major studio, no less (Paramount) — for everyone. A surreal blend of science fiction and horror that will frustrate plot hole obsessives, this film speaks to the core of how I prefer to be entertained by the medium of cinema. I’m referring cinema in the true theatrical sense, as the sound design — from the film’s score to its sound effects — begs for that isolating experience in a large room in front of a big screen.
Director Alex Garland based his script on the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy.” Its plot involves an armed research time entering a new land created by a meteor that crashed into a lighthouse. A pearlescent dome called “The Shimmer” encapsulates the lighthouse and has gradually expanded over time to cover the land around it, dubbed Area X. No exploration team has ever returned from it, save for one man, a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac). After acting strangely in front of his biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman), he is soon stricken ill and ends up comatose. Lena volunteers to join the next small crew to enter, a diverse mix of women including a psychologist and a botanist. What they find inside includes genetic mutations and a warped sense of time and place, where nothing seems to fall in order of the science we know on Earth.
During their adventures toward the lighthouse, which include encounters with things and scenes that are horrific, surreal and beautiful — sometimes all at once — the women, including a terrific Jennifer Jason Leigh as the psychologist Dr. Ventress, their numbers dwindle. A mix of ambivalence, enlightenment and menace, Ventress is key to the film’s ingenious reveal of what lies at the heart of the alien power. It’s not just because she has the best line alluding to the film’s title during the film’s most startling moment of pyrotechnics. Ventress is the sort of embodiment of life and death refracted in the world below the shimmer. DNA and psychology play a role that speaks to inherited neurosis and obsession, but also the sensitivity of DNA mixing between beings, where a kiss — or a bite — could change your construction and destiny forever. Annihilation is out there in a beautiful and fearsome way that makes the viewer aware of something else besides escapism or the present moment, a thoughtful science fiction film that is illogical in a frightful way because it’s based on something mystical in our biology.
I watch a lot of movies, so I appreciate this kind of oddness and creativity in a narrative film (I mean, look at my Master’s thesis paper). I also have a soft spot for mysticism, the psychological, surreal and the science fiction genre. Some of the other films that made my top 10 also fit the bill above. Either that or they take cinema to new heights (see Kiarostami’s 24 Frames). Without further delay (or praise of Annihilation), on to the list. Where there are reviews, I’ve added their headlines that link to them.
- Winter Brothers (Miami Film Festival movies for lovers of experimental film: Cocote and Winter Brothers)
- Claire’s Camera
- Lover for a Day (Lover for a Day presents beautiful if cynical story about relationships)
- 24 Frames (24 Frames offers revolutionary perspective on the ‘long take’)
- You Were Never Really Here (You Were Never Really Here presents dark, taut thriller that never trivializes violence)
- Isle of Dogs
- Zama (Zama offers raw, sometimes hallucinatory critique of colonialism in 17th century Argentina)
- Godard Mon Amour (Godard Mon Amour depicts France’s most serious director with biting humor)
Also, if you are on Letterboxd, you can follow the evolution of this list throughout the year here.